*Warning: the following short story contains images of violence and language.*
We’d been driving all night, and I needed to pee.
I could tell by the look on Jades face that he wasn’t going to pull over. We weren’t in a hurry or anything, he was just in one of those moods where if I dared to ask anything of him, he’d go to the ends of the earth to ensure I didn’t get it. I hated that mood. It had been the only one I’d seen him in for months though, and by that point, it felt like ‘normal Jade.’
It was just the two of us in his car: Jade driving and me, stuck in the back passenger seat. I couldn’t see the clock that was mounted in the dashboard just behind the steering wheel. I guessed the engineers over at Ford figured that anybody who’d want to drive one of their cars would be the kind type-of-person who’d offer the time-of-day to their passengers. Those engineers would be wrong.
The only thing Jade ever gave me anymore was grief.
The world beyond the headlights was pitch-black. It felt like hours since we’d passed Los Angeles and I could only guess that the low specks sprinkled in the distance were the first signs of Fresno looming ahead. I gazed into the bleak, whirling asphalt and forced my mind to go blank. That was a safe place. Blank, where there was nothing but me, myself, and I.
A flash caught my attention. It came and went before I could make it out but I thought I saw speckled fur and two bright dots. Probably a coyote. They weren’t uncommon in long stretches of road between Valley towns. Still, it was surprising when the car jerked up and pounded back down.
My temple banged against the frame of the car door, bringing my head from the empty fog I so frequently buried it in.
“What was that?” I asked at the same time Jade started his rant.
Between the swears was where he tucked information, but Jade was so angry the words ran together. “Stupidfuckinganimal!”
“Are you alright?”
The second the words were out I wished for a way to stuff them back in. Jade’s well-being and frame of mind were my main concern most of the time and the look he gave me through the rearview mirror told me it was a stupid question. It was. I knew it was. Oh, I was so stupid. The air in the car for the past few hours told me that stupidity would not be tolerated. I shrank back into my seat, wishing to disappear and knowing I never could.
Jade never stopped watching me. The amount of time he spent tracking my every move—he should’ve been born a hawk.
Instinctively, I hooked my fist over the shoulder strap of my seatbelt, down where I hoped he couldn’t see it, and mumbled my apology. Repeating it twice more when Jade’s arm stretched back towards me. I stiffened as he clutched the collar of my denim jacket. I thought of kissing his hand—the instinct to please him always so strong; I wanted to accept whatever he gave but I didn’t pucker. I was too distracted by the sudden — Thump. . . Thump. . . Thump . . . Of the road beneath us and wondering why it was suddenly bumpy. Jade was still cursing, but he let go of my jacket in favor of beating the steering wheel.
The car pulled onto the gravelly shoulder and I knew better than to offer any help when Jade got out to check the noise. No sooner did his door close than the trunk opened. There was some clanging, but I didn’t try to peek. I didn’t want to see or know what he was doing. I didn’t even want him to know that I was curious. He didn’t like my questioning him, but sometimes I just couldn’t help it. I’d always been a very curious person. I’d have to settle on what I knew: that our car had been the only one on the road for the past twenty minutes. The only lights came from the dashboard. I slid over to the left a little to see the clock. It was nearly four in the morning.
I shrank back into my corner when the driver’s door swung open. Jade set a hand on each side of the doorway, filling it up with his fearsome company. Those green eyes half-hidden by black hair dye peeked inside at an angle that pushed the hair back from his scowl.
“Flatfuckingtire! Keep still.”
“Do you need me to hold the flashlight?” I knew he didn’t like questions, but the thing in figuring out Jade was that sometimes he expected them in the form of me offering to do my piece and most days I had trouble figuring out which time was which. So my stomach stayed knotted up, worrying over if I was straying too far in any direction.
Jade gave a half-chuckle. “No, Elise. The last thing I need is your ‘help’ making things worse.”
It was hard to miss the insinuation. I was not smart enough to know what to do. Even if Jade sullied himself long enough to try and teach me it wouldn’t do any good. At least he didn’t think it would. But I was smart enough to know that nobody should be inside a car when you put a jack under it. Not that Jade cared. He’d do what he wanted.
The car eased up. From the tilt, I guessed the flat was on the front drivers’ side. The body made creaking noises with each rotation of the jack. It was a steady, almost rhythmic cranking that made me think Jade would have us back on the road in no time.
My heart ached at that thought. I didn’t want to move away with him, who else did I have? I was an only child. Mama had died a week before my 18th birthday and Jade was all I had left. It’s been just us two for over three years and I was lonelier than I’d ever been.
I wished for the chance to leave, but then caught myself. Wishing was stupid. They never came true. Jade said a man has to make his own luck. And sometimes at night, when he was sleeping, I’d lay beside him, thinking up ways to conjure mine. See, I had already made up my mind to leave him but there was no chance in hell I could get away if Jade suspected. He’d kill me.
A noise drew my attention from the fearful planning. It sounded like Jade, like he was calling my name. My heart beat faster. If he wanted me, I couldn’t waste time. Just as I pulled the handle of the door, the raised front-end of Jade’s Mustang suddenly dropped. The night air filled with pained cries. I was all adrenaline, scrambling from the back passenger seat and around the car.
All I could see aside from the headlights was the thin beam of Jades’ flashlight rolling beside the car. I reached for it, calling out. “Jade! Are you alright?” I heard him cursing only it was much softer than usual.
Flashlight in hand, I turned the beam on him and gasped. He was on his back, one arm trapped under the car nearly up to his shoulder. The flat tire was completely off the axle, lying in the gravel near his head. Jade was squirming and screaming at me to “Get the jack!”
I searched with the flashlight, aiming it into the gravel alongside the car. The small jack was flipped over. I could tell from the position how it had slipped out from its bracing but didn’t waste time flipping it back up. The problem was I couldn’t get it back under the lip of the fender without lowering it.
The crowbar. “Jade, where’s the crowbar?”
He cursed again, knowing I needed it to lift the car. As I searched the ground, I asked Jade again. I couldn’t see the thing anywhere. Then I thought, maybe he had gotten mad and thrown the jack. But then, why was he stuck beneath the car nearly up to his shoulder?
With my heart climbing up my throat, I got down on my hands and knees and bent low to look underneath. Jade was still cursing, insulting me and everything I ever touched like always, but there was something in his voice I hadn’t heard before. Or maybe it was just so long since I heard it that I forgot what fear sounds like. Well, Jade’s fear. Mine was a constant. I knew what my fear sounded like. It sounded like, “Yes, Jade.” “Of course, Jade.”
The thin beam of light landed on the edge of the crowbar that was wedged between Jade’s trapped hand and the gravel. Just on the other side of that, I spotted a few lug nuts. He must have been trying to hold the flashlight and loosen the nuts from the tire. Stubborn man—changing a tire is a two-person job in the dark. Jade was trying to pull double-duty and shot it all to hell. He probably dropped the dang lug nuts and reached under the car to get them and then knocked the jack loose. His arm had to be broken. I shuddered to think of the crimped flesh and bone. I had to get him out.
“You’re never supposed to reach under a car like that,” I spoke the thought before common sense stopped me.
It was all Jade needed to start reminding me how stupid I was. He didn’t need me to tell him anything. He was sure this whole mess was my fault because I couldn’t keep still for five minutes and I probably did it on purpose because he knew what he was doing. I was the one who was too stupid to know anything about anything.
Now, I’ve never claimed to be smart, but I’m not the one who thought it was safe to go crawling under a car that’s been jacked-up over gravel. But I knew Jade well enough to know that his mistakes were always mine. He was just getting started and the longer he had to think on it, the more reasons he’d come up with to make his accident my fault. It was always me. Present or absent. And Jade would make me pay for my mistakes in any way that crossed his mind.
Suddenly I was not feeling so hospitable. In fact, I felt the urge to roll my eyes, even though with Jade that’s about the worst thing I could do, short of kicking him in the man-parts.
I stood up from the ground, empty-handed, running the flashlight over his pinned position. It looked like his whole arm was trapped. As I looked, I could tell his hand and most of his arm was pinned by the wheel mount and axle.
I lunged back, going wide as Jade’s free arm swung wildly for me. “Get me out! Elise! Where you goin’?”
Where was I going? I had no idea but was already back on the passenger side of the car. My hands were moving but my mind was all blank, back in that protective space where I’d always hid most of me away. Aside from the fact that I wasn’t sure I was smart enough to form a real plan beyond the initial idea of leaving, I knew that only two things had kept me with Jade for so long. They were money and opportunity. I never had either one available to me at the same time. So I could never get out. Never get a big enough head start. He kept that house locked up so tight there was no way I could find my way to the other side of the front door. And I was not allowed to have cash. I couldn’t go to the store or Laundromat without him. Even the worst criminals under lock and key got an hour in the yard to exercise, but I couldn’t get a minute in the bathroom with the door closed.
Money and opportunity …
Still, I couldn’t just leave Jade lying there. I sure as hell didn’t want to be around when he was back on his feet, though. “I’m calling an ambulance. You need a doctor. Where’s your phone?” I sounded so scared. I was scared.
“In the glove box,” Jade grunted. “Give it to me! Hurry up!”
Of course, it would be in the glove box. The glove box he kept locked at all times. The glove box he wouldn’t let me near, which was why I was always riding in the back seat.
“What’s the combination?” I shouted sounding just as panicked as I felt, but panic was nothing. I lived half my life in panic.
“Get the crowbar! Get this car off me!” Jade screamed. “Please Ellie. Please!”
I ran back around to lock eyes with Jade. I hadn’t heard him say please before. Not sober anyway. Still, I kept myself out of his reach. My face was very serious as I broke the news that would surely end up breaking my jaw once he was free. “The crowbar is stuck under your hand, Jade. I can’t get it out. I can’t raise the car off you. I gotta call for help before you bleed out on the road. You need an ambulance, Jade.”
He took a short breath and something passed over his eyes. I was stunned when Jade strangled out the letters to the combination lock on his most prized compartment within the car. It was like a safe combination at the Federal Reserve as far as he was concerned. The glove compartment was where Jade kept all his worldly possessions. As I scrambled back around to the passenger side, Jade hollered the combination to me once more because he was sure I’d forget it.
I punched in the letters, the glove box opened and I took out his cell phone and started dialing. “Where are we?” I yelled, scrambling back through the headlights and toward Jade. He quickly supplied the northbound highway number and the mile marker we’d just passed.
I waited on the line as it rang and rang. I was walking around the back end of the Mustang, aiming for the back passenger seat when someone finally answered my call. The metered voice of the A-1 cab company dispatcher came over the line loud and clear.
The guy seemed a little confused as I explained in the lowest voice I could manage that my car had a flat tire, and then relayed the southbound highway and mile-marker, off by one number. Dispatch estimated half an hour which gave me enough time to run the distance across the freeway and down to the next mile-marker.
But before I did that, I pocketed the phone and emptied the cash from Jade’s wallet, then scooped up the .25 caliber pistol, leaving the extra magazine. Lastly, I grabbed his precious baggy of white powder and dumped it on the floor of the car.
Next step, saying goodbye to the first boy that ever loved me. I stood for a moment in the open doorway of his Mustang, imagining what Jade would do and then took off before I talked myself out of it.
It was terrifying, running out into the dead of night. I’d set the flashlight down to empty the glove box and forgot to pick it up. But there were two things that kept me from going back for it. The first was the sight of the taxi cab, waiting in the cone of light from the lamppost on the opposite side of the freeway. The second was the sound of Jade screaming his threats; what he’d do when he caught me.
The second the driver saw me, the taxi’s engine sputtered to life. I thanked the kind-looking woman driver and asked her to wait one more minute while I made a phone call.
The operator picked up right away. I gave all the details I could manage in an urgent tone, which I didn’t even have to fake. I was worried about Jade. I wanted him to be okay, but I also never wanted to see him again. So I told the 9-1-1 dispatcher to make sure the police came along with the ambulance. “The driver is screaming at everything that moves. I think he’s high on something.”
After, I hopped into the back of the taxicab asking the driver to take me into the nearest town and telling myself that I’m not a bad person.
I’m not a bad person.
4 thoughts on “Trembling Places: a Short Story”
Very cool moment when a character finds the strength.
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Wow! This story really packs a punch. You’ve really evoked the atmosphere well, too.
Thanks, Margot! It’s something I’ve had sitting around for a while. It’ll end up being part of a book, I’m sure.
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